A new study suggests that regular alcohol consumption decreases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis and can lessen the symptoms of the disease for those who already suffer from it. The authors of the study, a team of doctors at the University of Sheffield U.K., caution that the results are limited, but the findings could lead to valuable new research for limiting this painful, often disabling condition.
Arthritis affects an estimated 1 percent of the world's population, attacking joints with painful inflammation. The cause is unknown. Moderate consumption of alcohol is known to help reduce inflammation, and previous studies have shown that alcohol can reduce the risk of arthritis in rodents.
The study, published on the website of the journal Rheumatology, takes a closer look at alcohol's effects. The Sheffield team examined 1,877 volunteers—873 who have been diagnosed with arthritis for at least three years and 1,004 healthy subjects. They measured levels of inflammation in bone and cartilage using radiographs and asked participants to fill in questionnaires on their lifestyle habits.
They found that nondrinkers were four times more likely to develop arthritis than people who drank alcohol on more than 10 days a month. For those with the disease who drank, levels of inflammation were lower.
The study does have limitations, however. "We studied alcohol frequency, rather than exact amount, and cannot differentiate between different types of drink," says lead author Dr. James Maxwell. The alcohol questions were very broad. Drinkers were asked if they drank on one to five days per month, six to 10 or more than 10.
"It would be entirely possible that one [type of] drink would have stronger or weaker effects, based on the other constituents of the alcoholic drink," says Maxwell. But at this stage, he adds, "It would be entirely speculative based on our results to suggest that wine would be any better than beer or spirits."
Still, the authors say the results are promising. "I tell my patients that a small amount of alcohol, consumed responsibly on two to three days per week, is unlikely to be harmful," says Maxwell, who is also a rheumatologist at Rotherham Hospital. Any stronger recommendation will have to wait for further studies.